I’ve avoided this movie for some time, due to its bad reputation and just the general feeling that I had no interest in seeing Rocky slide back into the sad life that he escaped. This week of Stallone movies has given me the opportunity to watch this one, however, and while it’s not my favorite of the films, it’s not as bad as I feared.
Director John G. Avildsen — who directed the original — returns to direct this one, which finds our hero go right back to the same streets that he once trained on. Avildsen clashed with cinematographer Steven Poster during the making of the film, feeling that the realism of the movie was threatened by over-lighting instead of using a single spotlight to create a mood. Poster told Avildsen that the original film “looked like a cheap documentary,” to which the Oscar-winning director replied, “Exactly.”
A week after Rocky defeats Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, he returns to the United States. However, he’s not whole — the fight pretty much has finished him off, leaving him feeling broken inside. As he conducts a press conference, promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), who is pretty much Don King, tries to get Rocky to fight his man Union Cane (pro boxer Mike Williams).
The pain isn’t over for Rocky — not by a long shot. It turns out that thanks to bad advice from Paulie (Burt Young), the boxer gave power of attorney to his accountant, who pulled a Bernie Madoff on him, leaving him with a foreclosed second mortgage and six years of unpaid taxes.
It gets worse, too. Rocky has a brain injury that was further compounded by the blows he endured defeating Drago. Now, he can never fight again, so he must sell his home and all his belongings, moving back to the streets he thought he escaped.
After a night of drinking, Rocky enters his old gym and sees a vision of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) appear to him, telling him a speech much like the one that Cus D’Amato told Mike Tyson after his first fight. This leads to rocky reopening the gym and eventually becoming the manager for Tommy Gunn (boxer Tommy Morrison), a young man from Oklahoma who becomes Rocky’s surrogate son.
But doesn’t Rocky already have a son? He sure does and his kid Robert (Stallone’s real life son Sage, who would one day help form Grindhouse Releasing) must adjust from private school to the tough inner city school, getting his ass kicked every step of the way. Even worse, he has a dad who only wants to get in the ring and train his fighter.
Of course Tommy Gunn is going to give in to the dark side, falling under the sway of Duke. It’s brutal when Rocky watches on TV and Gunn extols the angel on his shoulder that the promoter has become, language specifically used to try and bring the retired champion into the ring. Instead, the two brawl in a brutal street fight that ends with Rocky victorious.
That fight, however, is awesome. That’s probably because pro wrestling legend Terry Funk choreographed it, which explains the German suplex spot. Amazingly, the fight was originally going to end with Rocky dying in Adrian’s arms. Eventually, Stallone decided to rewrite the ending, as he believes that Rocky is all about perseverance and redemption. A death in a street fight? That isn’t how a hero goes out, right?
Michael Williams and Tommy Morrison were scheduled to have an actual boxing match about a month after this was released, hyped as “The Real Cane vs. Gunn Match,” but Williams was injured and could not compete.
Speaking of Morrison, he had a pretty interesting life. His nickname, “The Duke”, comes from a claim that he was either the grand nephew or grandson of John Wayne, which may or may not have been true. He started doing tough man contests at the age of 13 before going into boxing, where he amassed a 202-20 record and won the Gold Medal at the Seoul Olympics. His pro career included wins over George Foreman for the WBO title and a 48-3-1 record.
At one point, Morrison was married to two women at the same time and had two children by the age of 19. Those sons, Trey Lippe Morrison and James McKenzie Morrison, have grown up to be pro boxers themselves.
His life took a sad turn in 1996 when he failed a blood test before a fight. He had HIV, which he said came from his permissive, fast and reckless lifestyle, saying “Wilt Chamberlain had nothing on me. Infidelity was one of my biggest battles in life. I couldn’t overcome it.”
Morrison tested negative for HIV in 2007 and began boxing again, even though some of those fights were supposedly staged. He also dealt with probation issues from past arrests that led to him serving nearly two years in jail.
In August of 2013, Morrison’s mother claimed he had full-blown AIDS, even if the boxer’s mother didn’t agree. Morrison died a month later from cardiac arrest, resulting from multiorgan failure due to septic shock caused by an infection.
In the years following the film’s release, Stallone acknowledged that the brain injury angle was inaccurate. Instead, it’s a mild form of brain damage, such as CTE, and it wouldn’t have prevented Rocky from gaining a license to box or put his life in danger.
When asked to rate all of the Rocky films by British host Johnathan Ross, Stallone gave this one a zero. I kind of love that he also has stated that Tommy Gunn left boxing and become a “third rate pro wrestler” afterward. I’d love to see that movie.
This is the only boxing movie I can think of with MC Hammer and Elton John on the soundtrack. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. But man, that last fight is great.